“You're looking down and it's like you're in this surreal out-of-body experience. You're almost like watching yourself do it; it's almost like it's not really you."
It was a regular Thursday afternoon when Paula Danz (then Paula Lindberg), 28, got a call from her boyfriend asking her if she wanted to go skydiving that Saturday. Her boyfriend, Karl Danz, told her that he needed a decision right at that moment because his coworker was about to book slots at Antioch Sports Parachute Center.
I'd never considered skydiving before; I'd never even thought of it and all of a sudden I'm like ‘Okay, I'll do it!’ and then I hung up because I had to get to my students,” Paula said.
At that time, Paula worked as a tutor at a small private tutoring company in Saratoga, Calif. She remembers telling her co-workers about how scared yet excited she was. She couldn’t believe what she had agreed to do.
“My whole life I have always loved the idea of flying and I just always wished I were a bird and I could go up in the sky and zoom through the clouds and look down at everything,” she said.
She hoped that skydiving would be like her dreams of flying.
Just two days later, Paula, Karl, and Karl’s co-workers drove to Antioch, a small town in California’s Central Valley. Although nowadays, most first time skydivers are strapped to a certified skydiver who controls the parachute, Paula and the 20 other people skydiving that day would be jumping individually.
To prepare, they had to complete 6 hours of training, which consisted of verbal directions and simulations of the jump in a harness. The instructors explained that a static line attached to the plane would automatically open the parachutes, but in the case of failure, the jumpers would have to cut away the main chute and pull the reserve chute.
Paula said that the training was extremely nerve-wracking and intense, almost like military training, as the trainer had formerly been part of the U.S Navy. At the end of the day, she was ready to jump.
“It's the anxiety before things that is harder for me than actually doing the thing,” Paula said. “By then, I was convinced that I’ve done all this training, so I can do this. I’m terrified, but I’m going to do it.”
But when it was time for her group (the last group of 5 people) to go up in the airplane, the wind picked up, making conditions unsafe for jumping. The jump was postponed and the remaining jumpers had to spend the night in sleeping bags inside a giant painted bulls-eye—the skydiving landing target in the middle of a field.
That night, the air was hot and dry. The little pebbles on the ground crackled from the sudden temperature change, almost like kernels exploding into popcorn. Paula’s worry also swelled and she began imagining everything that could go wrong the following day.
“My stomach was tied in knots,” she said. “I was getting really anxious and that ‘why couldn't we have just done this yesterday?’ feeling.”
After 3 or 4 hours of restless sleep amid tossing and turning, Paula awoke to a calm morning; the sky was a clear blue and she immediately felt reassured. The jump would go on as planned. Along with the four other jumpers, she crammed into a small propeller plane with its passenger seats removed and hunched over into a little ball in the far back of the passenger compartment. Since she was the lightest, she would be jumping last.
The plane lifted off the ground and rose to 3,500 feet. Crouched in the corner, Paula watched as the others jumped into the clear blue sky, one by one. She couldn’t see them fall, but she could hear the voice of someone on the ground simultaneously coming through the radio-waves and into the earbuds of all the jumpers, reassuring each jumper that they had a good chute and that all was going well.
Finally it was her turn. Trembling, she scooted up to the open door of the plane. The jump master sat behind her, encouraging her to go for it.
“You're looking down and it's like you're in this surreal out-of-body experience,” Paula said. “You're almost like watching yourself do it; it's almost like it's not really you doing it.”
After hesitating briefly, she jumped, lifting her arms into a V shape above her head while arching her back and shouting out loud as she had been taught in training the previous day: "Arch thousand, two thousand…!" The jumpers were told that if they got to five thousand and the main chute hadn't opened, they should cut away the chute and pull the emergency reserve.
For a second, she felt herself free falling, accelerating without anything to support her, before the chute opened, and she felt herself jerked, as if the chute were pulling her back up into the sky. She said that it was a relief that she hadn’t even gotten to three thousand when she heard the reassuring voice coming through her earbuds saying “OK, Paula, you’ve got a good chute!”
“All of a sudden you're just floating in the sky and all the other fears go away,” Paula said. “I was shouting out with joy like ‘Oh my God!’ and yelling to the people below.”
She remembers feeling in complete control of her parachute as she gazed out at the dry golden-brown fields and rolling hills stretching below her. In the distance, she could see power lines and grazing cows.
“I had plenty of time to really enjoy it and spin around a little,” she said. “You really do feel like you're a bird floating in the air.”
After about five minutes, Paula landed in the bulls-eye to the cheers of the others who had jumped before her.
Paula, now 64, said that skydiving helped her become more confident with trying new, even dangerous, things. Since then, she participa
ted in the 7-day AIDS/LifeCycle bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles as well as the 5-day Climate Ride from Fortuna, Calif. (near the Oregon border) to San Francisco.
“Skydiving was a life-changing experience,” she said. “This was a challenge that I was able to decide I was going to do and then actually followed through. It made me realize that I can try things that I never thought I would do, that I never even thought to do, and it'll work out.”